Father Thabet looks at the remains of the home he grew up in in Karamles. (Photo: Open Doors International)

As Iraqi government forces drive Islamic State militants from their last stronghold in the city of Mosul, the residents of Karamles, a town 30km to the east which was liberated six months ago, are returning to rebuild their homes.

The government has ordered the local school to be reopened after the summer holidays, though there is “still a lot to be done”, says 12-year-old Noeh.

“If the government says we have to go back to school here, of course we will,” he says. “But it isn’t safe yet.”

Noeh is visibly happy to visit his old school, which holds so many memories. He wanders across the playground. It is the first time he has been back since he fled IS in 2014. Since then, he and his family have lived in internally displaced people (IDP) camps in Erbil, a city 67km further to the south-east. There, Noeh went to a school for displaced children, which is soon to be closed.

Although his old school is familiar, Noeh’s steps are doubtful, his eyes dark as he stares at the cracked cream-coloured walls, which are still standing. A quiet reminder of the happy times he spent here with his friends. But the high-grown weeds, peeping out from between the concrete and the rubbish on the floor, tell a different story.

Noeh in front of his old school. He might be able to go back there after the summer holidays.

In the corner of the playground, he stops in front of an open door. He looks inside. This is his old classroom. The wooden desks and chairs are still there, waiting for the pupils to arrive, but the blackboard is bare and there is no teacher.

Noeh has a look inside his old classroom. He says he has to tread carefully because IS might have left bombs.

“I can’t go in any further,” Noeh says. “IS has been here and they might have hidden bombs.”

Noeh standing on his old school football field.

Bombs falling

The security situation is a constant worry for returnees like Noeh. When there’s a western wind, it brings with it the sound of falling bombs. The Chaldean Catholic Priest, Father Thabet, who fled with his people to Erbil but now encourages and supports them in rebuilding Karamles, admits that he is sometimes afraid.

“Yes, of course, this is normal,” he says. “But the situation for Christians in Iraq has always been unstable. All I can do is trust in God.”

While rebuilding their homes, the people of Karamles cannot help but wonder if IS will one day return. But Fr Thabet says security is improving and will continue to do so as more people return to live in the town again.

“It is our mission to live here in this place as Christians, the place of the root of Christianity,” he says. “Without faith I do not have a reason to stay here. But I have faith, so I am here.”

He hopes that the first villagers can move back into their homes before the start of summer. So far, 250 families have signed up to return, which makes Fr Thabet glad.

“The Church encourages the people, but the people also encourage the Church leaders to restore the houses,” he says.

Limited budget

The majority of the 797 houses in Karamles have been completely burnt-out, 97 have been reduced to rubble and the rest are severely damaged. Rebuilding is a slow process, which started with 20 houses, with 30 more on a follow-up list.

The sound of hammers and drills, instead of guns, can now be heard in the streets of Karamles. (Photo: Open Doors International)

“We start with the houses with the least amount of damage,” Fr Thabet explains. “Our budget is limited and the government is not helping us.”

Walking through the streets, it is obvious where repairs are taking place. People are busy replacing broken windows, placing locks on doors and painting walls. There are sounds of hammers and drills and there is paint for sale on the shelves of some of the shops that are open.

Those who are working on repairing their homes can stay in the Return Centre next to the church. It now has a generator, the first source of electricity in a town which, like the neighbouring city of Qaraqosh, is starting to be rebuilt.

Noeh’s family home is almost completely burnt-out and it will take time to gain the resources to rebuild it.

It is for families like his, who need to wait longer for the restoration of their homes, that Fr Thabet has thought of another solution: temporarily housing them in the empty homes of other locals who fled abroad.

Standing with his feet in the ashes of what was once his room, Noeh is already dreaming of the time he will have his own home and room again.

“I want my bedroom to be colourful – red, blue and green, with pictures of FC Barcelona and Jesus on the wall,” he says.